The sexual assault of a child is one of the most heinous of human acts. Government, then, faces a critical obligation to protect children from such terrible harm. A court case last week illustrated this need. It also pointed to important proposals that the Nebraska Legislature must pass this year.
In the court case, Eric Nelson, a former principal of Fontenelle Elementary School, was sentenced Tuesday to two weeks in jail and a year of probation for failing to contact authorities in the wake of reports about a predatory first-grade teacher, Greg Sedlacek. Sedlacek’s actions were reprehensible — grooming and assaulting a series of girls at his school. Douglas County District Court last year delivered an appropriate sentence in his case: 40-65 years for abusing six girls.
Deputy Douglas County Attorney Molly Keane described the grave harm Sedlacek had committed. “There’s the heartbreak of knowing he’s taking from her, this child, something she could never get back,” Keane told the court, reading a victim impact statement. “He stole her innocence and left behind a sad, confused and angry little girl.”
On the broader question of how to protect children, World-Herald reporting last year assembled the first comprehensive data set on sexually inappropriate actions by Nebraska teachers. Since the beginning of 2014, at least 56 certified educators in the state were caught having inappropriate communication or sexual contact with students.
The victimization included at least 74 students or recent high school graduates. In 41 cases, educators had sex or sexual contact with students.
Statewide, the average age of female victims was just under 13 years. If the elementary-age children abused by Sedlacek were excluded, the average age rose to 15.4. For male victims, the average age was 16.2 years.
At present, though, it’s not illegal in our state for a teacher or coach to have sex with a student who is at least 16, although such action can result in revocation of the person’s teaching certificate. At least 22 states, including Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado, have laws against such acts, with variations in the penalties and age range covered.
The Nebraska Legislature will have the opportunity to create such an offense — sexual assault of a student — when lawmakers resume their session later this year. The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has developed a proposal to create the offense, drawing on bills from four state senators. The proposal deserves strong support and passage.
In addition, lawmakers have given first-round approval to worthwhile legislation by State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to require all school districts in Nebraska to create a local policy prohibiting sexual contract between educators and students. The legislation gives districts appropriate flexibility in crafting their policies and requires that suspected misbehavior be reported to agencies including the state Department of Education.
Nebraska government simply must do all it can to protect children from sexual harm. The state can take important steps forward by adopting these needed proposals.